This West Village Institution Is Fighting for Survival, One Scone at a Time
Tea & Sympathy, and its two sister shops, have turned to customers to keep the doors open.
Tea & Sympathy, a small tea room-style restaurant in the West Village, is itself in need of some sympathy.
“That’s what I tell people these days: ‘I’ve given you the tea — now you have to give me the sympathy,” said Nicky Perry, 59, a co-owner of the restaurant that serves tea and traditional British comfort food.
It is one of three adjacent British-themed shops she owns and that have become something of a community outpost on Greenwich Avenue.
Rising costs — from rent and real estate taxes to city fines and fees — have left Ms. Perry struggling to keep the businesses open and have required her to take out several loans, she said.
She recently created a GoFundMe campaign to help save the shops.
“I had customers coming in crying at the prospect that I’d be closing,” said Ms. Perry, who was elated that supporters chipped in nearly $45,000 to help keep the shops going.
Some customers offered to work for free and vendors offered discounts, said Ms. Perry, who along with her husband, Sean Kavanagh-Dowsett, 52, co-owns the two adjacent stores: Carry On Tea & Sympathy, a grocery offering British sweets, biscuits and teas; and A Salt & Battery, a fish-and-chip shop.
The shops are so interdependent that, “If one goes, they all go,” said Ms. Perry, who said she pays a combined $28,000 in monthly rent for all three.
“Do you know how many fish and chips I have to sell to make that?” Ms. Perry said.
“It has such a cozy, homey feel and the food is really traditional. But it’s hard to keep a business going when so many stores around you have closed down, like they have in the West Village. Without places like Nicky’s, it’s not the Manhattan we knew. But she won’t go down without a fight because she really believes in her business and so do her loyal customers.”
— Rachael Elderfield
Her businesses are the type of colorful mom-and-pop shops that once made up the quirky retail fabric of New York City. But many have fallen victim to high rents and online competition.
“It’s like the city’s been smashed to pieces by greed,’’ she said.
One longtime customer of the tea shop, Robert Litwillers, said, “the Village is no longer the bohemian place it used to be, and this is why Nicky’s place resonates.”
“It’s been a comfort station for the neighborhood,” he added.
The tea shop has attracted many British expats and celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker, Dame Judi Dench and David Bowie, who celebrated his 50th birthday there.
Its menu includes British-style bangers and mash, Welsh rarebit, Yorkshire pudding and fresh scones served with clotted cream.
Part of the Tea & Sympathy dining experience is hearing Ms. Perry speak her mind, often very loudly, about issues like the city giving parking summonses to the shop’s delivery vehicle — a classic London cab.
“It’s close quarters, and Nicky really engages people,” said a longtime customer, Ashley Bekton. “It would be a shame to lose a place like this, a place where you actually have a human connection with people, in a world where everything has gotten so digital.”
Ms. Perry said the landlord for the tea shop space, Sky Management, has been patient and generous, waiving a portion of her overdue rent and real estate tax and reducing her monthly rent to $6,500 from $8,600.
“We want our tenants to stay in business,” said Jonathan Ohebshalom, a principal at Sky Management. “If they’re hurting, then we’re hurting. I don’t want a vacancy.”
“She brings life to the block and to the building, and it helps the whole area by bringing excitement and energy,” he added.
Still, Mr. Ohebshalom said, lowering Ms. Perry’s rent any further was not financially viable.
Ms. Perry, however, vows not to close.
“I’m not going to let the place go — I’ve worked too damn hard for too damn long,” she said, slamming her hand on a table. “We’ll chain ourselves to the radiator — I’m not going out without making some noise.”
Illustrations by Julia Wertz